UNICEF Emergency Specialist Mark Choonoo was recently in Homs on a one-month long mission. He describes the situation he saw there and the impact of the conflict on children and families.
HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic (February 15, 2013) — I have just returned from Homs, where I stayed for one month as part of a mission to assess the humanitarian situation in the governorate. We have also worked to review humanitarian programs and to strengthen and build our relationship with local partners for expanding our work.
Almost one in three persons in Homs is a displaced person, our partners on the ground tell us, and, according to them, 2/3 of the displaced population are children. Explosions, the sound of shells landing and the crack of gunfire are still part of day-to-day life here.
Less than 1,000 yards from the hotel where I stayed, fighting raged on with a ferocity that shook the city. Even though I have spent 20 years doing this type of work in some very dangerous areas of the world, every explosion still made me worry. Amidst the turmoil, we as a humanitarian team had to keep focused on how to improve the lives of those affected by this conflict.
I walked around to see how children in Homs are living. I went to a convent that works with children, situated at the end of a line of fully standing buildings before the destruction and rubble begins. I was amazed that the children of the area fearlessly made their way to these rooms to read their book, listen to teachers, draw their pictures and play their games. The drawings on the walls spoke of smiling faces, waving hands, laughter and messages of the need to forgive. Total contrast to the rubble outside that represents battered lives.
I also went to what is called the ‘towers’, unfinished blocks of apartments turned into collective shelters for displaced families. There, I met a 14-year-old girl and her younger brother, who have opened a classroom on their own for themselves and their peers. The two siblings, whose schooling was disrupted because of the conflict, have transformed their shelter into a learning space where children come to study textbooks together.
The common message I got from parents and all education practitioners I met was the need to make sure that children can complete their school calendar. A significant part of the education infrastructure in Homs has been severely affected by the conflict, with many schools either damaged by the fighting, or turned into shelters for displaced families.
Naturally, this is putting enormous pressure on classrooms that are still functioning and on teachers who are challenged to do more than their best to teach double and triple the size of their normal classes. UNICEF is working with partners to provide remedial learning programs to help more children continue their education. About 6,500 children have benefited from this program in Homs, and we are working to reach more children in the coming weeks. We will also soon be providing formal schools in Homs with essential school supplies to help increase access to and improve the quality of education.
I saw and heard about much suffering and desperation, but I also encountered amazing stories of people who, in the midst of it all, are doing everything they can to cope with their circumstances and create pockets of hope in a world of chaos.
Our partner in Talbiseh town, in Homs Governorate, told us how women are coping with the shortage of clothes amidst this harsh winter by turning blankets donated to them into clothes. We are providing winter supplies and non-food items for affected families, including packages of children’s winter clothes. But, unfortunately, because of the ever-growing scale of the crisis, there’s not enough to go around for every child in need to receive the full package.
Our partner in Talbiseh described that they will unpack the content of the boxes of children’s clothes that they receive from UNICEF and distribute them to mothers and children by the piece, according to the need: “So, for instance, we will give shoes to a child who needs them and give the pajamas to another child who has shoes but not clothes.”
During the past two weeks, UNICEF relief supplies—which include family hygiene kits, blankets, quilts, food kits and high-energy biscuits for children—have reached more than 67,200 people in Homs.
I cannot imagine the fear a little child experiences with each shattering that rocks the city. Most children I saw were showing some signs of distress. This is why it is extremely important that we set up child-friendly spaces and provide psychosocial support for as many children as possible.
We met with some local organizations working on psychosocial projects to discuss how we can work together. They are groups of energetic young people who had never imagined that one day they would need to do such work in their own city. Given my experience as a counselor, I was asked to guide them in their work, and we decided to set up a focus group of practitioners who will address the scale and magnitude of assistance that children need.
With the appropriate resources, and strong partnerships, there is so much more that we can do. I realize more and more the fear that has crept into communities, into people’s kitchens, into children’s lives. Our work in the area of psychosocial support will be extremely important to make sure that children can regain connection with their childhood, and grow up to become healthy and strong pillars in their society.